Tuesday, December 18, 2012

THE ECONOMIST takes note of Kenya's IT dynamism & innovation!

THE ECONOMIST took note of Kenyans' IT ingenuity: August 2012. I love this article... Innovation in Africa Upwardly mobile. Kenya’s technology start-up scene is about to take off Aug 25th 2012 | NAIROBI | from the print edition That’s another pedestrian dodged VISITORS to Kenya’s capital are often horrified by the homicidal minibuses called matatu. They swerve around potholes, seldom signal and use their iffy brakes only at the last second. They are therefore an ideal subject for a video game, which is why Planet Rackus, a Nairobi start-up, released “Ma3Racer” last year. Each player uses his mobile phone to steer a matatu down the street. The (unrealistic) goal is to avoid pedestrians. Within a month, a quarter of a million people in 169 countries had downloaded the game. Planet Rackus is one of hundreds of start-ups that have sprung up in Nairobi over the past couple of years. They are part of a quiet tech boom in Kenya, a country better known for coffee and safaris. In 2002 Kenya’s exports of technology-related services were a piffling $16m. By 2010 that had exploded to $360m. To its boosters, Nairobi is “Silicon Savannah”. However, it differs from its silicon sisters in one crucial regard. From the start, its tech firms have designed their products for mobile phones rather than computers. Kenya is still a poor country; few of its people own laptops. But there are 74 mobile phones for every 100 Kenyans, well above the African average of 65. And nearly 99% of internet subscriptions in Kenya are on mobile phones. Investors are piling in. Nailab, a working space for technology professionals, opened on Nairobi’s Ngong Road in 2011. Down the street is 88mph, a seed fund and incubator that launched earlier this year. Innovation 4 Africa, a similar outfit, shares the space. Two others, Savannah Fund and GrowthHub, started operations in May. Kenya’s biggest bank, Equity Bank, wants a piece of the action. It will also open an “innovation centre” by the end of the year. Most of these funds focus on mobile technology. GSMA, a global association of mobile operators, is about to open an Africa office, also on Ngong Road. A shilling for your thoughts Incubators provide start-ups with advice and cheap spaces to work, in exchange for a stake. In Nairobi they have plenty of talent to choose from. In June 25 teams of young men and women pitched their ideas to a panel of investors at Pivot East, an annual contest for start-ups seeking funds. Some 200 teams applied for a spot. Three factors helped Nairobi to become an African tech hub. The first is a supportive government. In 2005, when Bitange Ndemo was appointed as permanent secretary to the ministry of information and communications technology (ICT), Kenya was a technological backwater. Access to the internet was available only through satellite connections and was wallet-sappingly expensive. In 2009 Mr Ndemo brought the first of four undersea internet cables to the Kenyan coast. Prices plummeted and bandwidth exploded. Just under 12m of the country’s roughly 40m people now use the internet, a number that has trebled since 2009. Second, Kenya has undergone a revolution since 2007, when M-PESA, a mobile-payments system operated by Safaricom, a phone company, was launched (see chart). Many start-ups at Pivot East use it as a base for their business. One team streamlined the payment of school fees through the service by helping institutions and parents keep track of upcoming and late deposits. Another offered an electronic version of Kenya’s popular informal savings groups. M-PESA has also inspired others. In May Google launched Beba, a pre-paid card for commuters using Nairobi’s local buses. Insiders say that this is a test run for a much larger cashless-payment system. Third, since 2010 Nairobi has had a place, called the iHub, for local techies to get together and exchange ideas. The iHub has expanded to include a consulting arm, a research department and an incubation space called m:lab, which supports start-ups developing mobile applications. Erik Hersman, who founded the iHub, is also a partner in Savannah Fund. Investors are not the only people putting money into Nairobi’s start-ups. The city is brimming with aid agencies, development funds and foreign NGOs eager to shell out shillings. For many young entrepreneurs, seemingly free money beats having to give up a stake in their companies to venture capitalists. But cash from grants comes with strings attached, often in the form of abstract “goals”. At Pivot East, Paul Kukubo, the boss of Kenya’s ICT board, a government body that champions high tech, beseeched the audience to take more risks. “If we continue to make the sector grant-dependent, we will stop entrepreneurs,” he said. Incubators hope that start-ups will see surrendering equity as a fair price for the contacts and training they provide. Will Nairobi then compete with other emerging tech hubs such as Bangalore and Tel Aviv? Not at once, says Joe Mucheru, head of Google in Kenya. Nairobi has exported two notable innovations: M-PESA (which began life in London) and Ushahidi, a non-profit platform for crowdsourcing information during disasters. But most Kenyan tech firms are coming up with solutions to local problems. A team at Pivot East has built a service to help poultry farmers, who waste hours sitting around watching their chickens, keep track of their brood with text-message alerts. “We need to solve the nitty-gritty first and then we can invent new things,” says Mr Mucheru. Yet this may ultimately be the key to Kenya’s success. “We have so many problems that can also be opportunities,” says Mr Ndemo. M-Farm, a service that gives farmers access to market prices for the cost of a text message and allows them to group together to buy and sell products, has won several supporters and awards. It is the sort of thing Kenya could export to other poor countries. “You can create mobile apps from anywhere in the world,” says Chris Locke of GSMA, citing the success of Angry Birds, a Finnish phenomenon. Angry matatu drivers could be next.

BOOK REVIEW: Anne Mungai's Critical Perspective on Kenyan Film

POLITICAL COMMUNICATION IN FILM By Anne Mungai Lambert Academic Publishing 2012 Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru... Anne Mungai is best known for being an award-winning Kenyan filmmaker and trailblazer who made some of the first films about the plight of the African girl child (Saikati I and II) and the power young African women have to defy traditions and take control of their lives. Her revealing and well-researched docu-drama about Nairobi street children, called Usilie mtoto wa Africa also won her international accolades and inspired her to found Shangilia mtoto wa Africa, which was not simply a street children’s home. Her idea was to offer chokora (street urchins) a channel for sharing their creative talents through music, dance and drama, skills she had seen them perform every day in the city streets. The former lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communications (KIMC) who currently teaches at Kenyatta University has continued making films, although they have been more informational since she went to work for the Ministry of Information and Communication. But it wasn’t until her recent book launch at the British Council in Nairobi September 5th that we discovered Mungai is also a scholar whose text Political Communication in Film examines The Impact of political communication and films and how it shapes public opinion. Based on the research she did for her master’s degree at Cardiff University in Wales, Mungai’s book not only appraises the power and impact of film on public opinion, both regionally and globally. It is also grounded in the notion “that developing countries are responsible for improving their image on the global communication scene.” Deeply cognizant of the fact that the Western film lens has consistently projected a demeaning view of Africa and Africans, Mungai examines a range of black images, including those that reinforce the negative stereotypes and belong to what she calls “the politics of misrepresentation of African people by the West.” But she wastes no time in clarifying her appreciation for fellow “filmmakers from the continent [who] make films from their own perspectives.” For her, African filmmakers telling “their own stories” are implicitly making political statements because as the African film scholar Diawara put it, they are at “less risk of misinterpreting African cultures.” For her, filmmakers from the region are also constructing “political communication” because their films implicitly challenge the negative stereotypes and defy the dehumanizing beliefs about Africa as a ‘dark continent’ filled of witchcraft, ignorance, conflict and poverty. To illustrate her point, she compares two feature films, one which she feels reflects the prevalent Western perspective of Africa which hasn’t changed much since the days of Tarzan, while the other is by an African filmmaker (Mungai herself) who claims that she, like her “fellow filmmakers [doesn’t] just make films to entertain, but also to raise awareness among the public in a positive manner.” Both films are award-winning and both constitute ‘political communication’ by making subtle political statements about the values and the worldviews of the respective filmmakers. The Constant Gardener earned the leading actress Rachel Weisz an Academy Award while Saikati earned Mungai international recognition, including accolades from UNICEF. Because Mungai conducted her research as a social scientist, she managed to interview a wide array of film practitioners and scholars from all over the world, including fellow Africans who shared her view that The Constant Gardener merely used Kenya and the Kibera slum as ‘backdrops’ to tell their story about a white woman who came to the continent as a “savior” and died a martyr in the process. Reinforcing the stereotypes that Africa is a ‘dark’ and dangerous place to go, Constant Gardener seemed to be an expose about the drug cartels’ evil practice of using ‘naive’ Africans to test their drugs. But to Mungai, it projected the same old clich├ęs of Africans as either victims or vagrants begging the white man/woman for money or means to escape the misery implicitly African. In contrast, Mungai made Saikati with the awareness that she wanted to present an empowering image of the African woman, unlike “most western films [that] portray African women as … victims.” Saikati is about a young Kenyan woman who defies the patriarchal traditions and sets out to take control of her life. However, once she reaches the big city, she finds there are so many challenges and so few options open to young single women, she chooses to return to her rural life rather than lose her self-respect to the economic exigencies of urban life, like prostitution. Mungai’s point is that both films convey forms of political communication, one projective a positive, the other a negative image of Africa and Africans. In summary, she believes all African filmmakers have a responsibility to create cinema with that consciousness of the immense power that film has to communicate accurate images of Africa.

Hearts of Art's original new show at National Theatre

Scars, saints and stilettos, a stunning premier at National Theatre By Margaretta wa Gacheru, 22 September 2012. Hearts of Art founder – director Walter Sitati is a seasoned storyteller and the first Kenyan playwright to produce a script that directly tackles the topic of post-election violence 2007-2008 and its aftereffects. His Scars, Saints and Stilettos premiers last Saturday night at the Kenya National Theatre, Sitati’s third original script staged there since the start of the year. Sitati is by no means of newcomer to the challenging work of writing plays which explore timely and relevant topics that relate to contemporary Kenya. He started drafting and directing original scripts while still an undergraduate in the Film and Drama Department at Moi University in 2004.But where he got into writing as a way of winning awards and speaking to a broader audience was when he taught at St. Cecilia Girls Secondary School and some of his scripts went with the girls to the finals of the Kenya Schools Drama Festival. Currently a post-graduate candidate at Daystar University, Sitati formed Hearts of Arts out of an artistic impulse and the need to cultivate the creative process through plays that he could both script and stage himself. Calling local actors on Facebook to come audition for a new theatre company, he was stunning by the many hundreds who answered the call. “It showed me there are thousands of young people out there who want a chance to prove themselves on stage,” said the playwright-producer who also acts and directs. Auditioning all 700 would-be actors wasn’t easy, but it did ensure that Sitati was able to select young Kenyans who could actually act. This was apparent last Saturday night when Scars, Saints and Stilettos told the story of two families from different ethnic communities who were attacked during that horrific period when Kenyans were uncharacteristically vicious and violent towards one another. That period is only seen briefly in an ugly flashback an angry mob from Jamili’s (John Kamau) own ethnic group attacks him for trying to defend his own home and that of his best friend. His house and family survive intact, but Jamili’s friend Manzo (Walter Sitati) watches his home and business go up in smoke. The only thing Jamili loses is his “manhood” which is chopped off as payback for ‘betraying’ his ethnic group by protecting his best pal. So for last last five years, Manzo and his family have been living under Jamili’s roof. Both men have a wife, daughter and son; but the two families are as different as night and day. Jamili is generous beyond words, meanwhile Manzo cheats on his best friend by first seducing his daughter Jesse (Beatrice Wachuka), and thereafter seducing the wife Hela (Ellsey Okoth). Betrayal is a major theme in this well told tale, as Manzo not only steals the daughter’s innocence; he breaks her heart by dumping her for ‘another woman’ who happens to be her mother. Meanwhile, Manzo’s daughter, Trish (Gloria Numgari), who looks lost inside her mobile cell phone and Facebook is actually recording the whole sordid set of affairs on social media. In the end, Manzo gets exposed after Jesse takes revenge on the shameless louse (who even ‘borrows’ money from his buddy to take Jamila’s wife Hela out on the town). When all of Manzo’s garbage ‘hits the fan’, he’s attacked both verbally by Hela and physically by Leslie (Grace Waihuini) his wife. He’s even shot by Jamili’s son Nibo (Boni Ndonye). But the real kicker is when everyone learns that Trish has recorded the whole story, blow by blow, on Facebook. What’s amazing and slightly unreal about the story’s ending is that betrayal gets turned around and trumped to become forgiveness, first by Jamili, then by Jesse and her mom, and finally, even Manzo’s wife and children forgive the man. Clearly, the playwright wants to send a timely message of hope and forgiveness in these months before the next Kenyan General Election. It may have seemed a bit far-fetched, as when Nibo exchanges his gun for his guitar, then starts crooning ‘The Storm is over now’ and the whole cast joins in. But the show is surprisingly moving, despite a horrible sound system that crackled with distracting music through much of the play. Next time SSS is performed again, I highly recommend the music is canned altogether as it made listening to the dialogue difficult at best. Scars, Saints and Stiletto confirms that Sitati is a playwright to watch as he is one of the few Kenyan writers who’s taking up the real life dramas of Kenyan life and framing them in story forms that have passion, poignancy and the purpose of making audiences think about salient subjects affecting their everyday lives.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Willie Wambugu's drawings at Kuona Gallery

At last, I've come back to my blog to try to catch up on 'archiving' all or most of my writings for the Nation Media Group http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Kuona-Trust-Gallery-plays-host-to-contemporary-Kenyan-art/-/1248928/1519018/-/13qn93s/-/index.html WILLIE WAMBUGU'S ‘SEATS OF POWER’ SHOW OPENS AT KUONA By Margaretta wa Gacheru SEPTEMBER 24, 2012 Recently returned from Brussels, Belgium, where his one-man exhibition entitled ‘Seats of Power’ did very well at the Roots Contemporary Gallery, William Wambugu (who’s known to most of his Kenyan friends as Willie) isn’t resting on his laurels. His pen and ink artworks will be on show from this evening (September 28th) at the tiny Kuona Trust Gallery. Kuona’s exhibition space is actually a perfect size in which to see Wambugu’s delicate and finely detailed drawings of African interiors, most of which were drawn in an A4 sketch book that he kept to himself for many months before showing it to the Italian gallery owner and curator Samantha Ripa di Meana. The unassuming and shy Wambugu approached Ripa di Meana after a talk she gave on contemporary Russian and Chinese art at Kuona Trust one Tuesday afternoon early last year. She wasn’t enthusiastic about his oil paintings but his drawings intrigued her. Thus, a friendship was struck in which the curator-art collector became a mentor to the young Kenyan artist who had recently shifted from the GoDown to a studio space at Kuona in Hurlingham. As a mentor, Ripa di Means shared a spate of art books and materials with the Kenya Polytechnic graduate (Class of 2005) who only drew in his spare time before deciding not to be an IT specialist but a visual artist instead. Self-taught apart from an apprenticeship with matatu artists and his attendance in various art workshops at both Kuona and the GoDown, Wambugu had asked her not for money or materials but rather he wanted advice on how to develop his art. And since their initial meeting, she has helped him to do just that. She’s helped him to mount several solo exhibitions, one of which was held at the Belgian ambassador’s residence entitled The Anthropology of Tools. It featured a series of black and white drawings of locally-made hand tools, including wheelbarrows and rakes, machetes and njembes. Another was held in her spacious garage in Westlands which she transformed into a gallery that she now calls Roots Space Nairobi. Entitled Walks of Life, that second exhibition was all about shoes, both ones that he personally owns and ones Ripa di Meana had acquired while living in China with her Russian husband and children. Wambugu’s most recent exhibition, which ran from June through July in the Brussels art gallery, is what will be replicated at Kuona, excluding only the drawings that were sold overseas. The show itself will again be called Seats of Power and will feature mainly his meticulous drawings of African interiors including many of the items you typically find in most middle class Kenyan homes, such as comfortable seats and sofas covered in embroidery, coffee tables, brooms, shoes and other necessities of everyday life. “What I appreciate about William is the way he takes a topic [such as hand tools, shoes and seats]and interrogates it in detail,” said Ripa di Meana who had exhibited several of Wambugu’s drawings earlier this year in a group exhibition held at her home featuring works by other Kenya artists, including performance artist Ato Malinda, photographer James Muriuki, and the painter Paul Onditi. But the Brussels exhibition was devoted exclusively to Wambugu’s art, some of which was drawn on his A4 local paper, some on cardboard, and the rest designed on special art paper given to him by Ripa di Meana that came from France, India and China. She didn’t give him the hand-made papers right away. But one of the first things that impressed her about Wambugu, apart from his sincerity and obvious desire to grow as an artist, was his creative use to the cardboard boxes she initially gave him to work with. They were cleverly transformed into three-dimensional versions of the drawings of Kenyan interiors that he first showed her from his sketch book. Those same boxes were part of a small exhibition that she organized at Le Rustique restaurant shortly before they went off to Brussels in June. At least one of them will be in the Kuona show. Wambugu’s solo exhibition at Kuona Trust will be on for three weeks. Prices of his drawing range from KSh10,000 to KSh130,000. His creatively constructed 3-D cardboard box interiors are KSh150,000 .